Tag Archives: Immanuel Kant

Flowers and the Division of Labor

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]

Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680) [detail]

A flower is beautiful for Kant because it presents itself as having a self-determined teleology. We subjects find our Imaginations reflected back to us, transforming ourselves.

Purposefulness without purpose is an achievement of freedom in that it does not arise out of set rules, but rather creates its own rules. At a different register, it is akin to the potential of the bourgeois subject to participate in any given trade. Bourgeois society puts its stamp upon the very medium through which we understand ourselves.

Terror and Fear

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Neolithic ancestor masks found in the Judean Hills (ca. 9,000 BC)

Could an image be made that mimics terror? Or is the mimetic act itself a function of the transformation of terror into fear? The movement from myth in the process of enlightenment runs parallel to the movement from terror to fear. Fairy tales are an index of the subjective development out of the world of myth that has not truly faded for all time. This movement is not guaranteed to be that of constant progress: that is why it the dialectic of myth and enlightenment.1

With the development of subjectivity in society, man’s Imaginative abilities are historically formed. Consequently, so is the ability to recognize the Sublime. This is all related to the movement of enlightenment—what Kant called “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.”2 For Kant, the Sublime has a particular dialectic of form and content, in which the form is adequate to the content, but the content goes beyond the form. Kant writes, “But the other [the feeling of the Sublime] is a pleasure that arises only indirectly; viz. it is produced by the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them, so that it seems to be regarded as emotion,—not play, but earnest in the exercise of the Imagination.”3 The force of the object is felt through the subject’s Imagination in this way. The subject is not overcome by the object, but is, rather, affirmed through its ability to not be overcome.

The danger of the regression of historical consciousness into myth constantly rears itself, and it reigns now. Inspecting regression at the register of the Sublime, Adorno writes, “In the repetitive rhythms of primitive music the menacing aspect originates in the principle of order itself. In this principle the antithesis to the archaic is implicit as the play of forces of the beautiful single whole; the qualitative leap of art is the smallest transition. By virtue of this dialectic the image of the beautiful is metamorphosed into the movement of enlightenment as a whole.”4 It necessarily appears that with self-domination under capital, the phenomena of capitalist society such as the individual, are the carriers of embedded myth. Adorno notes this especially with regard to the category of the ugly:

Archaic ugliness, the cannibalistically threatening cult masks and grimaces, was the substantive imitation of fear, which it disseminated around itself in expiation. As mythical fear diminished with the awakening of subjectivity, the traits of this fear fell subject to the taboo whose organon they were; they first became ugly vis-à-vis the idea of reconciliation, which comes into the world with the subject and his nascent freedom. But the old images of terror persist in history, which has yet to redeem the promise of freedom, and in which the subject—as the agent of unfreedom—perpetuates the mythical spell, against which he rebels and to which he is subordinate.5

——
1 See Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. An aside: the New Left has almost ruined the reception of this book through its misreading of it. Adorno and Horkheimer are noting how through the lens of regression in the 20th century, the entirety of history appears as the apology for domination. The New Left instead thinks the authors are rejecting Marxism in favor of a transhistorical anti-authoritarianism. No.
2 Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?,'” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54.
3 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000), 102.
4 Theodor Adorno, “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 52.
5 Ibid., 47.

Descending into Individuality in Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Henri Matisse, La Desserte rouge (1908) [detail]

Theodor Adorno’s opening paragraph1 addresses any apprehensions his readers might have concerning the discussion of lyric poetry and society. Adorno explains that his methodology is not that of a sociologist identifying the general aspects of society arising in the particularities of the poem as if it were an identical mapping of ideology, but rather it is an approach beginning from the poem and moving outward, or, more accurately, an immanent dialectical critique. Adorno wishes to see the interpenetration of lyric poetry and society through the poetry itself—to see how the monad of the poem prismatically shines outward, illuminating society as it is and as it isn’t. The chief task of critical thought arising from poetry is “rather to discover how the entirety of a society, as a unity containing contradictions, appears in a work; in which respects the work remains true to its society, and in which it transcends that society.”2 The individual itself is most social when he acts as an individual,3 and in doing so, he attempts to participate in the bourgeois promise of what Kant calls “unsocial sociability.”4 Just as this individual’s attempt to realize himself is thwarted by contradiction, so too is the poem most revealing when it attempts to be itself, and thus when it shows a gap between its meaning and its context. By working immanently through the individual character of the lyric subject as it appears in the poem, Adorno is able to grasp the work’s critical stance.

Despite its seeming untimeliness, lyric poetry is not a remnant of feudalism nor the impossible daydreams of utopians, but rather it is particularly bourgeois in its expression of discontent and in its preconditions, both in its production and reception. Lyric poetry requires and implies the individual, which only comes about through the development of bourgeois society, where social relations are mediated through the “freely” given labor of individuals. This historically specific universalizing compulsion also implies the potential for the sharing of aesthetic experiences in a way that had not been qualitatively possible before, although, paradoxically, art in pre-bourgeois civilization has the appearance of being more immediate.5

The phenomenon of lyric poetry itself implies—or is seen as—the battle ground for dialectics that have broken into antinomies, of which the most contentious are subject/object, individual/society, private/public, particular/universal, unique/abstract, and essence/appearance. These antinomies are related to that of the commodity form, whose ongoing crisis enigmatically pushes and necessarily changes appearances for us. Lukács states plainly the need for drawing this connection, “at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure.”6 Adorno, like Lukács, is not interested in choosing one side of these antinomies over the other, but rather he is interested in seeing how the phenomenon of lyric poetry expresses and clarifies their contradiction in society. The overwhelming assumption made by society about lyric poetry is that it should be a realm of the private subject or individual, of quality, of particularity, and of essence. Society prefers and reifies the lyric subject,7 the appearance of which is defined negatively against the opposing antinomies above: “the subjective being that makes itself heard in lyric poetry is one which defines and expresses itself as something opposed to the collective and the realm of objectivity.”8 Such a one-sided expectation of art as demanded by the middle-classes ultimately does not achieve its goal: “Meaning itself became bound to the accidents of individual fortune and happiness; it acquired, or rather usurped, the dignity that it would otherwise attain only in conjunction with the happiness of the whole.”9 But even in escaping to the particular, meaning is still damaged. Only through social emancipation can these antinomies be overcome and completed in a unity that would still preserve their reciprocal non-identity.

The focus of Adorno’s essay upon a seemingly frivolous activity actually reveals the seriousness of lyric poetry’s meaning in society. The light touch with which society holds lyric poetry allows thought released by the poem to move in such a way that it is able to press against its context—a movement which “once set into motion by a poem cannot be cut off at the poem’s behest.”10 Lyric poetry is what Kracauer would call an “inconspicuous surface-level expression” of an epoch—one of the expressions, which “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”11 This is why the individuality of the lyric subject is addressed by Adorno, who adds, “the descent into individuality raises the lyric poem to the realm of the general by virtue of its bringing to light things undistorted, ungrasped, things not yet subsumed—and thus the poem anticipates, in an abstract way, a condition in which no mere generalities (i.e., extreme particularities) can bind and chain that which is human.”12 The aesthetic experience of the “involuntary crystallization”13 in the poem points beyond the status quo by revealing the immanent contradictions in the non-identity of society’s practices and its ideals, and how it has thus fallen below its own threshold to become barbaric.

The style of lyric poetry is in part “a form of reaction against the reification of the world.”14 It uses the same language as society, and yet its placement is able to resist reification, if only in making the reader or listener feel the difference from the consciousness of everyday life. Reading Stefan George’s poem, Adorno points out that its use of language becomes so individuated and unique that it condemns instead of affirms the status quo, even if that were not its goal: “only by means of this extreme differentiation could the lyric Word do the bidding of language’s deepest being and oppose its enforced services in the realm of economically organized purposes and goals.”15 It is the very uselessness—as deemed by the instrumental reason (ratio) of capital—which momentarily disrupts reification. But art’s dreams cannot be fulfilled through art alone. By creating something new and different from that which already is, the poem implies the possibility of transformation of the world. The aesthetic education from the reception of such transformation could inform the judgment required to properly mediate both the Pure and Practical Reason for further transformation.


1 Theodor Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” in Critical Theory and Society: A Reader, eds. Bronner and Kellner (Routledge, 1989), 155.
2 Ibid., 156.
3 Karl Marx, excerpt of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (Princeton: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 85-86.
4 Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” in Political Writings, ed. H. S. Reiss (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 44.
5 Theodor Adorno, “Society,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 225.
6 Georg Lukács, “Reifcation and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1971), 83.
7 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 162.
8 Ibid., 158.
9 Ibid., 166.
10 Ibid., 156.
11 Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), 75.
12 Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” 156.
13 Ibid., 160.
14 Ibid., 157.
15 Ibid., 169.

From Supersensible to Sensible

Kant writes:

Now even if an immeasurable gulf is fixed between the sensible realm of the concept of nature and the super sensible realm of the concept of freedom, so that no transition is possible from the first to the second (by means of the theoretical use of Reason), just as if they were two different worlds of which the first could have no influence upon the second, yet the second is meant to have an influence upon the first. The concept of freedom is meant to actualise in the world of sense the purpose proposed by its laws, and consequently nature must be so thought that the conformity to law of its form, at least harmonises with the possibility of the purposes to be effected in it according to the laws of freedom.1


1 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2000 [first published 1790, 1793; translated in 1892]), 12.

Nietzsche as Philosophe on the Body

In the preface for the second edition (1887) of The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche poses the problem of the body in the wake of the high-reaching philosophical systems of his predecessors:

The unconscious disguise of physiological needs under the cloaks of the objective, ideal, purely spiritual goes to frightening lengths—and often I have asked myself whether, taking a large view, philosophy has not been merely an interpretation of the body and a misunderstanding of the body (34-35).

Using words like “ideal” and “purely spiritual”, Nietzsche seems to be referring to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel, in that they appear to eschew the body in their philosophical systems which thus encourage an ascetic view of life. In this regard, it seems Nietzsche might be somewhat unfair to them. By opposing what might be called “philosophy” proper, Nietzsche, is rather a philosophe. I use this term in the way that Louis Menand uses it—in his introduction (2003) to Edmund Wilson’s To the Findland Station (1940)—to describe Marx and Engels as “philosophes of a second Enlightenment.” One could include Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the category of philosophes of the first Enlightenment, in that he too resisted what he considered philosophy affirmed the status quo. In Rousseau’s case, he was resisting the Catholic Church’s narrative that ordered all of society as determined by a great chain of being descending from God and the Church.

Implications from the Subtleties between Subject and Object

As I continue to read Adorno’s lectures on Kant, I find myself increasingly impressed by the depth of Adorno’s thought. Not only that, but at moments in his discussion of Kant’s thought that seem so disconnected from what might be superficially associated with Adorno and the Frankfurt School-or at least with whatever vague topics I imagined they engaged before I got to know their material better.

One example of finding Adorno’s brilliance in his interpretation comes about in his discussion of the relation between subject and object, specifically on the question of constituens and constitutum. Adorno introduces the problem:

I think we have now reached the point where we need to consider these criteria [for the definition of objectivity] a little more closely, particularly since, if I understand the situation rightly, this leads us to the heart of one of the central problems of the Critique of Pure Reason, one that we have not really discussed as thoroughly as it deserves. I am talking about the problem of constituens and constitutum. To give you the keywords: the criteriea Kant gives for synthetic a priori judgements and thus for genuine, valid knowledge with a substantive content, are the concepts of necessity and universality, universality and necessity (138).

In dealing with what is considered an idealist system of knowledge, Adorno first reveals one of its contradictions in a way that shows the seemingly isolated subject actually presupposes itself within a society of peers. Adorno states,

[…] if my starting-point is a multiplicity rather than the connections between what is immediately given in each specific individual consciousness—then do I not just presuppose the very thing I had set out to prove, namely, something like a subjective world? Do I not simply presuppose for the entire argument the thing that has to be constituted—society and with it an empirical reality? Kant has shown great wisdom in leaving this question unresolved (145).

After introducing society in through the cracks of Kant’s structure, Adorno explains the importance of history in the understanding of knowledge.

With these glimpses of knowledge and an implied history, Adorno extrapolates his own interpretation to become an argument against the fashionable, destructive ontology of his contemporaries, such as Martin Heidegger.

Here we see some of the inspiration for Adorno’s project of Negative Dialectics.

Reason and Flesh in Bondage

Detail of Caravaggio's Martirio di San Pietro (1601)

Detail of Caravaggio’s Martirio di San Pietro (1601)


A few times in Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out that reason is stupid, that it needs knowledge and the Understanding to guide it. Given reason’s penchant for veering wherever it wishes, Kant mentions different ways in which it must be restrained. This might not always be a bad thing: Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason is an indictment of the ways in which reason can be used for the justification of awful things, for example: the reasoning behind genocides as a purification of the human race. In his lecture on knowledge in Critique of Pure Reason, Adorno points out the strangely old-fashioned way that Kant restrains reason for the sake of morality, when Kant writes, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” I’ll quote Adorno’s lecture at length here:

You perceive here a very different side of Kant. This is the side that wishes to impose restrictions on reason on the grounds that because reason is natural it can be concerned only with the natural, and must therefore detract from the dignity of everything supernatural.

This places Kant in a tradition that is of extreme importance for his practical philosophy. I am speaking here of the tradition of German Protestantism, in which, as you know, the concept of reason is narrowly circumscribed in favor of faith. The emphasis placed on faith, which puts it in sharp contrast to Catholicism, was gained by downgrading knowledge and natural reason […]. You will all have heard mention of Martin Luther’s reference to ‘that whore, reason’, and its echo can still be heard here. Incidentally, this Lutheran description of reason as a whore reminds us how frequently the language of philosophy has recourse to erotic metaphors when it wishes to set limits to reason or to rebuke reason for its arrogance. In the Critique of Pure Reason, when Kant desires to impose limits on reason and restrict it to the world of appearances, while declining to extend it to the Absolute, he uses the expression about ‘straying into intelligible worlds’. It is as if the speculative inclination of mind to go in the direction of the Absolute, to refuse to allow oneself to be cut off from the Absolute by a wall, went hand in hand with a kind of sexual curiosity from the very outset. Later psychologists homed in on this particular point by showing that there is a profound link between the impulse to know and a curiosity that is ultimately sexual in nature. […] Moreover, the same kind of metaphoric language is to be found in Hegel when he is discussing Kant’s view of this problem. He says there that if philosophy does as Hegel wishes and thinks the Absolute, it will be moving into a region where, as he puts it, there are ‘houses of ill-repute’ (71-72).

The tradition of self-denial within western culture makes its appearance even in Critique of Pure Reason-a work of philosophy which attempts to cast off theological, ascetic strictures upon metaphysics. Adorno points out that Kant holds reason itself back in such a manner because its characteristic of being natural is grounds for claiming its unreliability to think beyond nature. Reason’s proximity to natural indulgences, according to Kant, hinders its abilities. Perhaps Kant is worried that reason, in the realm of the human body, might linger indefinitely on the island of lotus-eaters. And as Adorno points out, this restriction on reason mirrors those placed on human pleasure.

Nietzsche attempts to philosophically trace the sacred ascendency of asceticism. In doing so, he writes of slave morality, which is a deification of powerlessness, a lack of the sensual, and a lack of happiness. Thus, the religious act of giving up such things is based rather in an envy for a life full of them. Is it any wonder that the institutions most known for their devout abstention are also known for their obsession with all indulgences? Human bodies have long been relegated to a position inferior to the spirit in matters of knowledge and happiness. The painting above of Saint Peter’s crucifixion points to the total self-abnegation in death that then becomes deified in the tradition of martyrdom. The New Testament demands a kind of faith that makes the flesh worthless, for example when Jesus is contemplating his impending death in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

In his essay “On Hedonism,” Herbert Marcuse ponders this divide between idealistic and materialistic happiness. As is to be expected, he finds a more dialectical than polar answer to this conundrum: since happiness has been so strictly tied within subjectivity, it is currently difficult for such personal happiness to be the grounds on which citizenship in society can rest. The future, however, Marcuse hopes, is one in which personal happiness properly coincides with a happy society. As it stands today, it is sometimes too easy for one to fall into the offered pleasures of a culture that is complicit in the status-quo: “If happiness is no more than the immediate gratification of particular interests, then eudaemonism contains an irrational principle that keeps men within whatever forms of life are given. Human happiness should be something other than personal contentment. Its own title points beyond mere subjectivity” (120). Marcuse points out how the history of philosophy has its own ascetic strain in which happiness is not to be found in the subject’s material self. He notes that hedonism’s material happiness is also shared by the interests of critical theory:

It is against this internalization of happiness, which accepts as inevitable the anarchy and unfreedom of the external conditions of existence, that the hedonistic trends of philosophy have protested. By identifying happiness with pleasure, they were demanding that man’s sensual and sensuous potentialities and needs, too, should find satisfaction—that in them, too, man should enjoy his existence without sinning against his essence, without guilt and shame. In the principle of hedonism, in an abstract and undeveloped form, the demand for the freedom of the individual is extended into the realm of the material conditions of life. Insofar as the materialistic protest of hedonism preserves an otherwise proscribed element of human liberation, it is linked with the interest of critical theory (121).

In the goal of true human happiness, critical theory shares something with hedonism. It is due to our existence in a realm of pleasures and drives that Frankfurt School thinkers became interested in what psychoanalysis might be able to offer to the struggle for a happy, human future.